Paying Attention to Detail

Story by

Shailendra Gyawali







One thing that I’ve always found intriguing as an international student is how absolutely important even the smallest of things can be for us, especially when we are new to the American university. Local students will certainly face many of the same challenges that I faced as someone coming from the other side of the world, but I thought there were too many things, including the too small things, that were at first very challenging to me. Let me describe a few.

Finding the right building and the right classroom was a big deal at first. The day I joined a college in the US, September 4, 2007, was a very exciting and important day in my life. When I entered main gate, I felt minuscule compared to massive buildings around me. Each department had its own building and I was looking for the Mathematics department. I did have a detailed pocket map of the college that was given out at the orientation program, but even after I located the correct building, I was still lost. A student nearby looked at my desperate face and asked if I needed any help. I said yes, but when trying to describe the help I needed, I had to repeat myself several times because she couldn’t understand my accent. Finally, she understood me and took me to the right classroom, even though she was running late for class herself.

The next challenge was understanding the details about a course. The first week of class, I found it very interesting—and this time, it was also very useful rather than confusing—that each of my professors handed out a “syllabus” that contained a lot of detail about the course. Most of the professors talked the entire 45 minutes about the syllabus and course outline. For the local students, much of the details of the syllabus may have been obvious or just a formality that the professor includes in the document, but for me syllabuses were an absolute blessing. They worked even better than the campus map I had the first day of class because they provided a concrete timeline, distribution of credit points, and description of the work to be done. For me, the syllabus was like a reference book. Without the detailed syllabuses and schedules, I would be lost, and I might not have become the successful student as quickly as I did. I was astonished and grateful to realize how helpful the syllabuses and schedules were. I had never seen something like this in my life before. The well-organized course outline and dedication shown by professors helped to overcome my apprehension of studying in a different academic system.

Moving on to the many and mostly new academic activities, I was at first overwhelmed by large assignments. Because in my previous academic training back in South Asia, I had never learned how to read, write, or research in the way that was being demanded here in the US. So, even a five or seven page paper was overwhelming for me. In most of the courses, I could handle the content itself, but when it came to the skills for researching, reading and writing, it felt like I lacked basic skills. I could not find the right references because I didn’t have research skills. I couldn’t read enough materials because my reading was slow and incompetent. And I couldn’t write well because I didn’t know where to start or how to develop my own ideas, because I had not learned how to write. Back in my home country, I never wrote or learned to write as a part of education. Writing was only required for taking final exams, and that did not help me develop writing skills. I answered questions and didn’t remember anything that I wrote. I never did any research or wrote anything extensively.

But, again, as a new student in the US, I gradually started being able to tackle the big challenges by paying attention to tiny details. I read the assignments very carefully and underlined the words I didn’t understand. I made appointments with tutors at the Writing Center to get their help with writing. Soon, I realized that everything was more systematic here. There was more support and people were willing to help. I could take small steps for making bigger achievements. I actually liked the academic system and environment here.

As I paid attention to and learned one small detail after another, I soon began to feel that I was headed in right direction of learning and I was a step closer in the process immersing myself in another world of knowledge and deepening my personal and academic understanding of science. If you are a new international student, I would reassure you that if you pay attention to small details, you will soon begin to gain confidence. You should take in the experience of studying in a different country and academic environment with interest to the little daily things. If you are serious and interested, your understanding will begin to make you no different than anyone and perhaps better than the average student.

So, my best lesson learned as an international student in the US was perhaps this: pay attention to detail.

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